Researchers in Winnipeg's National Microbiology lab must now obtain extra approval before they transport lethal pathogens, after a "miscommunication" three years ago left senior officials scrambling to find out why a shipment of Level 4 viruses was sent out of the secure lab.
In the summer of 2008, one of Winnipeg's prominent disease researchers froze vials of some of the world's deadliest pathogens — including Ebola — in liquid nitrogen and packed them in special containers to ship to the United States.
At the time, Dr. Heinz Feldmann worked in Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory special pathogens unit, the only facility in the nation with a Level 4 containment lab where researchers wear special hazardous-material suits and work with lethal viruses behind multiple layers of sealed, air-tight doors. He had accepted a job at a Level 4 U.S. federal lab in Montana, and planned to take his research with him.
The lab does not ship live viruses very often, and officials say this particular shipment was a significant size — about one-tenth of the high-containment lab's total virus stock.
But there was a problem.
While Feldmann's supervisor knew about the shipment and was present on the day he sent the viruses out of the lab, other senior lab staff — including the Level 4 lab's acting director and scientific director Dr. Frank Plummer — had no idea.
When they noticed the viruses had been shipped, they scrambled to find out what had happened. Officials will not clarify what day Feldmann shipped the viruses and what day lab staff raised concern about them due to "safety and security reasons."
Documents obtained through an access to information request reveal the lab quietly launched an internal investigation about the shipments. All but five of the 149 pages related to the review are blacked out due to sections of the Access to Information Act that allow the government to refuse information that may harm international affairs, was obtained in confidence from a foreign government or institution or could harm third parties.
The Winnipeg Free Press has filed a formal complaint with the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada.
Plummer said there was no security breach, and Feldmann had informed his supervisor about the shipment. However, he said, the problem was Feldmann's supervisor was away the day concerns were raised, leading to a "miscommunication."
Plummer believes he spoke with Feldmann the same day concerns were raised, and said Feldmann had all of the proper import and export permits and shipped the viruses according to the proper standards.
He said the National Microbiology Lab now requires researchers to obtain extra approval before they ship material.
"It was an internal matter it wasn't a risk to the community," Plummer said.
The incident occurred just a few months before a former vaccine researcher stole 22 vials of biological material. No one noticed the vials were missing from the high-security facility for four months until the researcher was arrested by FBI special agents in May 2009.
Plummer said Feldmann had the authority to ship the materials.
"Nothing untoward or illegal was done," he said.
Feldmann is now chief of virology at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Hamilton, Mont. When reached by phone, Feldmann said he did not know about the internal investigation but obtained all the proper documents and approval to ship his materials.
"The live-virus shipment is totally regulated," he said. "I cannot send anything into the U.S., because we have to follow regulations. It would be professional suicide to ship anything without proper documents and paperwork."
All but five pages in document hidden
How did we get this information?
The Free Press filed a detailed access-to-information request with the Public Health Agency of Canada that was received on March 22, 2010. The request asked for information regarding an investigation into Ebola vaccine material and/or live virus at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg between July 2008 and November 2008.
What was the response?
In a letter dated June 13, 2011, the request was granted. However, all but five of the 149 pages are blacked out. The information is protected under sections of the Access to Information Act that allow the government to refuse information that may harm international affairs, was obtained in confidence from a foreign government or institution or could harm third parties. The Free Press has filed a formal complaint with the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada.